The Evolution of Gangs as Political and Social Actors in El Salvador

Foreign Affairs (Latin America edition) published a series of articles in 2011 discussing the supposed emergence in Mexico of a “narcoinsurgencia.” The term was used to describe Mexican drug cartels as a form of insurgency that could threaten the state. Most experts agreed that organized crime couldn’t be considered an “insurgency,” noting that they are motivated by profits, not by a political or ideological agenda.

Powerful criminal organizations often penetrate every aspect of the society they operate in, including politics, culture, the economy and its democratic institutions.  In certain circumstances, criminal organizations take over or replace the state—providing security, administering justice and funding social works projects for the benefit of the communities under their control. This was the case of Pablo Escobar in Medellin, Colombia in the 1980s and is the case today in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Despite significant influence in certain Latin American countries, however, criminal organizations have never been seen as legitimate political and social actors.  This may be changing in El Salvador, where gangs seem to be evolving into influential political and social agents.

Similar to drug cartels in Mexico, gangs in El Salvador are a source of instability and an obstacle to the economic, social and political development of the country.  Successive governments since the 1990s have adopted hard-line policies towards gangs with programs such as Mano Dura and Super Mano Dura.  The effectiveness of such an approach has been limited as violence has seemingly increased without restraint despite the government’s tough stance.

President Funes came to office promising a new approach—a mix of punitive measures and social and economic programs to combat the root cause of the gang phenomenon in El Salvador.  More than half way thru his five year term, Funes has failed to reduce the level of violence and improve public safety. El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world (70 for every 100,000 inhabitants).

In this context, the recent dramatic reduction in the daily homicide rate of almost 60 percent has been welcomed with skepticism by Salvadoran civil society. According to public accounts, the reduction in violence stems from a “truce” between the two main gangs in El Salvador (MS-13 and Barrio 18).

El Faro first broke the story March 14, reporting that the government had held secret negotiations with gang leaders, which resulted in the transfer of some of the most dangerous prisoners in the country from maximum to lower security facilities in exchange for a reduction in the daily homicide rate.  Other media reports alleged cash payments from the government to the families of certain gang leaders. The government denied any negotiations had taken place.

Catholic Church officials later revealed that they had mediated between the two gangs.  Gang leaders and church officials also denied any government involvement, and characterized the negotiations as an extension of a long process of “reflection.” The mediators described the truce as an “act of good will” from the gangs towards society. Government officials have since acknowledged a supporting role in the mediations.

Since the disclosure of the “truce,” gang leaders have asserted themselves as legitimate political actors, issuing press releases, appearing in political talk shows from prison and even proposing national policy changes.  Their rhetoric is decisively political, arguing that gangs are a product of “misguided socioeconomic policies derived from the economic models implemented in El Salvador.”  In public comments, gang leaders talk about “social exclusion, marginalization and repression” and claim to represent the interest of their “members” and their “barrios.”

Negotiating with criminal organizations is often discussed as a policy alternative in Latin American countries afflicted by high levels of violence. Proponents argue that the state can appease violent criminal groups without breaking the law and allow for the pacification of society. The reduction in violence would bring economic benefits that would serve to reinforce a virtuous cycle that would eventually diminish the influence of organized crime.

Appeasing criminal organizations through negotiations and concessions, however, are probably unsustainable unless the government is also willing to address the socio-economic and political issues that allow for gangs to flourish. El Salvador’s civil war and its gang phenomenon grew out of the same structural inequalities that have haunted the country for much of its history. Ultimately, El Salvador will be unable to escape the violence, whether it manifests in gangs, organized crime, or civil war, until it deals with the structural causes.

It is also a struggle to consider criminal organizations as legitimate representatives of the marginalized masses, even in the areas that they control. Their legitimacy stems not from democratic elections but from violence, fear, and the victimization of society as a whole. Violence is their main bargaining chip when they sit down at the negotiating table, and their recourse is to continue holding society hostage. And if El Salvador is going to have a democracy, fear and violence cannot be allowed to serve as a route to political and social legitimacy, just like wealth should not give one person more of a voice than another.

The evolution of gangs as political and social actors reflects the failures of the Salvadoran state and the country’s democratic institutions.  The state has failed to effectively perform its most basic functions; to guarantee the security of its people. El Salvador’s democratic institutions have failed to produce policies to incorporate the marginalized masses into the economic, social and political life of the country.

While the decrease in violence is welcomed, the Salvadoran government must take advantage of the respite to begin addressing the fundamental problems they have been ignoring for generations. Otherwise, its just a matter of time before the violence begins to rise again.

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